The amendment, named for its principal author, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would also eliminate the “three-entity rule” that allows farmers to receive payments on more than one farming operation and generic commodity certificates that have been primarily used for marketing cotton.

While proponents of the amendment, mostly from the Mid-West, claimed the amendment would redirect payments to small to medium-sized farmers, opponents, mostly from the southern states, said it would devastate family farmers.

“We don’t have enough money for everybody, so we should invest the best we can for family farmers,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of the bill's co-sponsors who argued that unless something was done about newspaper reports of millions of dollars in payments to big farmers “taxpayers would stop supporting farm programs.”

But opponents of the amendment blasted the “vile, misleading” information produced by environmental groups about farm payments that they said had created a false impression about farmers who work the land.

“This amendment is being pushed by groups who claim to represent the interests of the family farmer, but who, in fact, could care less about the family farmer,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who led the opposition in the floor debate on the amendment.

Instead, she said, “These groups wouldn’t shed a tear to see American agriculture dead and buried. It is shameful enough that those who spread these stories claim to do so in the name of the farmer while in fact working to remove him from the very land he farms.”

The amendment, which was the subject of more than two hours of debate on the Senate floor, passed by a voice vote, making it difficult to determine how many senators voted for it. But an earlier attempt to table it failed 66-31.

Opponents of the amendment said they would attempt to eliminate the measure or soften it in the House-Senate conference that will follow if the Senate passes a farm bill. Senate passage of the long-awaited bill could come as early as Feb. 15.

Lincoln, who acknowledged her ties to a family farming operation near Helena, Ark., noted that a farming couple named Gary and Pam Bradlow of England, Ark., are listed on the Environmental Working Group's Web site as the top recipient of farm payments in their area.

“Surely then, the Bradlows must operate a big farm,” she said. “Surely, they are wealthy plutocrats jetting about the Caribbean in their yacht. In fact, the Bradlows are struggling to keep their heads above water.”

While the Bradlows farm 2,000 acres in central Arkansas, Lincoln said, “they barely achieve the economy of scale they need to survive. This is because they grow rice, which is the most expensive, capital-intensive crop a farmer can grow. The other most expensive crop to grow is cotton, which happens to be the other main crop in Arkansas.”

She cited a series of figures such as $100,000 for larger tractors and $285,000 for a six-row cotton picker as reasons why those crops are so much more expensive to produce than corn and soybeans.

Another southern senator, Zell Miller, D-Ga., called the Grassley amendment an “attempt to wipe out agriculture in the South as we know it.”

Miller, who noted that those $285,000 cotton pickers are manufactured in Grassley’s home state of Iowa, said the amendment was an attempt to move from making farm policy to social policy.

“What they’re saying to farmers in the South is ‘hold still, little catfish, all I’m going to do is gut you,” he said.

There was a moment of confusion in the Senate when Dorgan named Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., as a co-sponsor of the amendment. A few minutes later, Dorgan admitted that he had made a mistake and asked that Cochran’s name be stricken from the record as a co-sponsor.

Cochran later spoke against the amendment, saying it was a “punitive measure against southern farmers, one that would have a devastating effect on southern agriculture.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.